May 5, 2017 saw the world celebrate our most famous wine variety.
Master of Wine Michael Brajkovich reports that the 2017 Auckland vintage was on time, despite a “quite ordinary” summer with maximum temperatures of 26 degrees Celsius, compared to a usual Auckland summer with one or two days of 30 degrees.
A significant amount of south west wind caused drought stress symptoms followed by 60 millimetres of rain, which precipitated harvesting at Kumeu River Wines.At the time of writing there was still a lot of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris to be harvested.
The weather would dictate if harvest was able to continue with overcast conditions prevailing.
“There are a lot of similarities between this year and last, in terms of the grapes coming in about the same time. There is a bit of moisture, so we’re looking at getting grapes in rather than letting them hang out too long, although we’re not even a quarter of the way through yet.”
Brajkovich said it has been a relatively cool season rather than a long one, but this did not seem to have affected the vines significantly because everything was on time, to date.
Effusive is one word that describes how James Millton of Millton Wines defines the build up to the 2017 vintage.
“I reflect back to 1983, 1989 and 1998, which were truly classic, amazing and brilliant vintages,” he says. “This is almost on top of that. So we have high expectations.”
Conditions for flowering were extremely good, there was good fruit set and the yields are more on the average side than high.
“There have been, as there is around the country, some issues with powdery mildew, but we are very happy with our ability to have dealt with that.”
Millton said the February full moon resulted in an incidence of botrytis, but that has also been dealt with.
“To my mind it has been almost perfect. It could be a glorious Gisborne vintage.”
Prepared to only comment on the varieties he himself grows, Millton said the Pinot Noir looks amazing, but it is the Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay that are standing out.
“The Chenin Blanc bunches are starting to take on a slight apricot colour, which I haven’t seen in years. That is because of the wonderful conditions we are getting and it reaching physiological ripeness. The Chardonnay is looking just a blast. It’s all berries.”
Gisborne vineyards are all dry farmed, which Millton says is not due to an abundance of rainfall, but because the soils have the ability to hold moisture.
“Therefore the vines can take what they want, when they want, and how much they want. That has shown through this season, which I would have to say is an unbelievable one.”
An exceptionally good growing season marred only by a late three-day rain bomb has set Hawke’s Bay up well for a great vintage.
With two months of picking ahead of them, growers were counting on settled conditions in expressing cautious optimism about the forthcoming harvest. As Rod McDonald of Rod McDonald Wines said, “as long as the weather behaves itself, it’s going to be a beauty.
“The early hot weather, from the New Year through February set us up really well. We got the heat around flowering and veraison and the fruit has gone through evenly. We haven’t got a spread of ripening in, for example Chardonnay with 21-24 brix.
“Everything has hit the magic right spot at the same time, which is a strong indicator for quality wines.”
Late February’s unexpectedly heavy rain event - between 90 and 120mm across the Bay’s sub regions - was the last thing growers needed. But McDonald said that while the three days of wet were not ideal, only perhaps 20 percent of vineyards were affected and with those only five percent of the fruit sustained damage.
“Those affected vineyards will produce a slightly lower yield. The only variety really affected is Sauvignon Blanc and then not much.”
Xan Harding of Double or Quit Vineyard at Haumoana, said there had been “a bit of splitting around the place, for example a little in the Syrah.” But, he added, it had been a wonderful growing year. Vineyards had dried out since the rain and were back on track going into vintage.
“We had good sets with the dry weather. There was a bit of a challenge with early spring rain but after a dry winter we needed that to recharge the soil. From late October on it’s just been fantastic with very good flowering weather and no disease pressure.”
Villa Maria viticulturist Jonathan Hamlet characterised the season as really hot and dry.
As a result, the company’s Hawke’s Bay fruit was a little advanced at the start of harvest, which got underway at the end of February with Pinot Noir for low alcohol Rosé.
Red varieties had gone through veraison very evenly and were looking “fantastic”. Chardonnay was also ripening really well.
Chris Howell of Prospect Vineyard at Maraekakaho said ongoing winds during the first half of the season caused a few headaches in generating extra work.
“We thought we’d finished the tucking job but it blew shoots off the canopy. So it was tricky in that regard.”
The rain bomb also created further work for growers.
“It encouraged extra vigour after we thought we’d shut the vines down so we were using soft chemicals to hold the crops. “ However Howell wasn’t expecting it to have caused any problems in the long run - “the grapes will hold up fine.”
Wellington Wine Country
Katherine Jacobs from Big Sky Wines in Te Muna Road, Martinborough, says the 2017 season was tracking with the same sunshine hours as 2013, which seemed surprising after quite a poor summer. Bunches were relatively big, so ruthless fruit thinning was being done to ensure fruit intensity and tannins.
“We are very excited about 2017 vintage and will be looking to pick as late as we can to make the most of the benefits of long slow ripening that bring the fantastic savoury notes the Wairarapa is famous for.”
Gladstone winery, Urlar’s new winemaker is Carol Bunn who says this year’s vintage was on target with last year’s in terms of brix levels.
“We’ll be looking to start harvest before the end of March this year. We’re not finding bunch weights or crop loads to be significantly out of the ordinary – we’re on target for predictions.”
Spring had been dry, but with enough rain during the growing season to keep the vines going with very little irrigation.
“This is good for the vines as they will push their roots further down and can withstand longer periods of time without the need to irrigate.”
Compared to down south, Bunn says that the wind moderates bunch sizes more in the Wairarapa. This meant less need for fruit removal with naturally lower crops and more open bunches, but she stressed this was a generalisation. Parts of Central Otago were comparable.
“I’m keeping our fingers crossed. If good weather keeps rolling in, I’d expect this vintage to be very good for Gladstone and for Urlar.”
It hasn’t been the usual summer for Marlborough winegrowers. It began with mixed conditions in December just as Sauvignon Blanc began to flower. The earlier part of the month was cool and wet, with temperatures and sunshine not emerging until the end. That has resulted in variability of crop levels throughout the region.
Stuart Dudley, Villa Maria’s Regional Viticulturist says the season is little bit behind because of that variability. “We are finding block to block there is quite a big change and from clone to clone.”
Pernod Ricard’s chief winemaker, Patrick Materman, says the changeable December weather had led to more hen and chicken in bunches.
“Yes there is some of that out there, but it depends where in the valley you are. Some (blocks) have got some pretty healthy crops, but there are others that have slightly lighter bunches because of those December conditions.”
Dudley says they have had to undertake a bit of thinning in Sauvignon Blanc to try and nullify the variability.
“The later flowering blocks were sitting at or above average so we have done a fair bit of yield work on them.”
There was little let up once 2016 morphed into 2017. Especially as the region was battered by strong winds, that hit gale force on numerous occasions. For many, including Dudley, it was a case of going into repair mode.
“Trellising maintenance has probably been as hard as I have ever seen it. We have had to deal with a number of broken posts due to the relentless wind run.”
Rain that occurred in mid to late February brightened the canopies and he says they have been able to keep on top of disease.
But any thoughts that this will be an early harvest have been quashed.
We will really ramp up the Sauvignon Blanc harvest into April, rather than the last week of March, where we often do,” Dudley says. “We are a little bit behind. Although the temperatures make it look like it has been a warm season, with the wind and overcast conditions, it hasn’t resulted in pushing the fruit along.”
Everyone spoken to believes the crop will be average, or maybe slightly above. But there is very little anticipation that yields will reach last year’s highs.
Across the various sub-regions in Nelson the story is pretty much the same - after a wet vintage last year, spring was basically free of cold nights and frosts allowing the vines a great start to the 2017 vintage.
Regular rainfall, with some significant events during spring and summer has provided enough water to ensure very good canopy growth and fruit development.
However the regular, and reasonably strong winds, have kept mid-summer temperatures lower than long-term averages with many commenting they have never experienced a summer like it in Nelson.
Low temperatures and strong winds during November, December and January along with regular rain impacted on fruit set, however normal bunch numbers have been produced but with slightly lower berry numbers on the bunches.
In general across the region, crop levels are at around long-term averages or slightly above with vines delivering naturally balanced crop loads along with reasonably open canopies and bunches so the quality of fruit is looking very promising.
Gary Neale from Brightwater Vineyards on the Waimea Plains says they didn’t need to do very much fruit thinning this year and the balanced crop is ripening pretty much as expected. He says; “a few growers were concerned about the ripening speed, but the long, warm and dry weeks leading up to vintage was forecast so we are very much where we would expect to be.
“The fruit is in beautiful condition and the slightly lower bunch weight with quite open bunches will help with both ripening and drying if we do have wet weather during vintage.”
The signs were looking good for Waipara growers in early spring. There were no frost events, and enough timely rain to allow good canopy growth. However the drizzly conditions did drag out the flowering period, according to Dominic Maxwell of Greystone Wines.
“We have a little bit of variability because of that. Some bunches may be a couple of weeks behind other bunches, so a lot of work has gone into thinning and that is continuing now, (early March).
He says the thinning hasn’t been because of high yields, more to try and even out the variability that has been showing through around the region.
“In some areas we would be sticking fruit on, if we could.”
The rain that fell during December abated fairly quickly and Maxwell says they were now facing very dry conditions, which was impacting on the vines. Berry size was small and there was more hen and chicken showing through in all varieties, than normal.
“The dry weather has contributed to that, along with the poor flowering. I think it will be a short, sharp harvest. If it stays warm and dry then those vines aren’t really going to want to hang onto the fruit for too long.”
However the fruit looks robust and given the settled conditions during late February and early March there has been very little disease pressure.
“We are expecting some good intensity in the fruit this year, and from a wine quality point of view that is great.”
When someone who has been growing grapes in Central Otago for 25 years says that the 2016-17 season is one of the trickiest yet, then that carries some weight. But when you learn that he has fought frost in every month of this growing season, then something a little odd is up.
For Timbo Deaker, and Jason Thomson whose company Viticultura provide vineyard management services through Central Otago and the Waitaki, there are two words that crop up regularly when describing this season… “aggressive wind.”
“If you had called me at this time last year I would had been full of glowing rhetoric about a cracking vintage, but this one has not been quite that straight-forward. We started off thinking that we were heading into what was going to be a very warm-hot season, and after a cracking good spring when we were probably 12 days ahead of where we would be historically. Since then it has been unseasonably cool with plenty of moisture and extremely aggressive winds.
“We’ve failed to accumulate the heat that we would expect at this time of year and have been very mindful that our canopy has taken a beating from the weather and that we are going to need every bit of ripening that we can at the end.”
Even in steady growing seasons, Deaker reckons that it isn’t straight forward estimating yields and even less so when elements dish out a dodgy hand.
“What we are really concerned about is the variation of big berries and small berries within the bunch. Basically the vines have combatted the wind by closing down their stomata and not producing as they normally would.
“If we were seven days ahead at the beginning of the season, then we are running 7-10 days behind now, but in saying that, some of our bunches have filled out really well over the last couple of weeks so perhaps it’s too early to say.”